The Children of Corporations
by Becky Miller

I teetered on skipping our Thursday afternoon lecture last week. The title, ‘Creating and Capturing Business Value through Design,’ was enough to get me to the threshold of the room but with only a few months left to produce our final graduating project, time felt precious. I'm often torn between the desire to spend time in the library or at my desk - getting under the skin of things that really hold my attention or out doing my project - and the fear of missing out on a something that has been curated for my benefit as a paying customer of the world's most prestigious art and design college. Indeed, it often feels as if my program’s timetable is designed to push me through this decision process repeatedly. Nearly every slot is neatly filled with a lecture or seminar delivering value against the thousands of pounds of tuition fees that students dutifully pay each term. Although not every transaction delivers on expectations, provided I go with an open and critical mind, there will be some takeaway value.

On this occasion, the fear of missing out won. I took my seat halfway back and waited for the lecture to start. The speaker was a strategy designer from BCG Digital Ventures, a sub-company of Boston Consulting Group (BCG). The former was set up in 2013 in Manhattan Beach, California and has since spawned offices globally, from Berlin and London, to smaller bases in Tokyo and Melbourne, now employing a few hundred people across the world. They share the clients of their parent company, who come with ideas and ambitions for startups but lack the resources, skills, agility and audacity to develop and launch them. Enter BCG Digital Ventures: helping corporations have babies. (My tagline, not theirs.)

Lecture notes from Thursday 25th January 2018

The lecture proceeded apace, wryly conveying the speed at which they are proud to work, accelerating ideas through research, concepts, prototyping and launch, often in just a few months. The intense, systematic approach is matched with its own vocabulary and logo-graphics with which we became increasingly familiar during the course of the 45-minute lecture. For example, as an employee at BCG Digital, you get 'stuffed' onto a 'venture’, working on either the initial 'Innovation' sprint, the proceeding 'Incubation' sprint, or the final 'Commercialisation' sprint, where a startup is launched to market. During this intense sprint you work in 'pods' - smaller multidisciplinary teams of three or four, nested within the main team that has about 25 people - and all are stuffed into one shared working space for the duration of the venture. Once a sprint is complete you proceed to the 'beach' - a place of your choosing - where you are free to do as you please; just enough time to recuperate before you’re summoned for your next sprint. (Presumably the original employees at Manhattan Beach did actually go to the beach.)

It sounded like a high-energy, intense and productive way to work, which the speaker confirmed. It must be satisfying to work on - and crucially to complete - such a variety of projects (sorry, ventures) in a relatively short period of employment. It’s common knowledge that millennials get hungry for change every three years or so, often frustrated by the slow pace at which certain large companies work. This sprint style workflow certainly disrupts common working practices.

Evidently, this 3-step ‘sprint-to-launch' model (Innovation, Incubation, Commercialisation) is an effective business strategy and an asset for human resources, having successfully launched multiple startups for clients since their first 'venture’. In 2016 BCG Digital Ventures launched FarePilot for Shell, an app for taxi drivers that is now set to compete with the likes of Uber and Lyft, answering Shell's dilemma of establishing a direct relationship with minicab drivers, presumably as the oil side of their business becomes obsolete in light of the inevitable waning of fossil fuels. Later in the same year, they launched an electric scooter-sharing service called Coup, for Bosch, the world's largest supplier of automotive components. Coup was first rolled out in Berlin and will soon expand to Paris, securing the parent company's longevity in the mobility sector.

It makes a lot of sense, helping corporations have babies: big corporations know they are aging, often tied to declining industries, and they become less agile the older and bigger they get. Yet, they want desperately to live on - they need to, for their shareholders’ sakes - so the best strategy is to pass on their genes to the next generation by making babies*. This corporate reproduction also finds favour with young job-seekers who demand purpose and job satisfaction, an optimised work-life blend and global opportunities.

However, as the lecture drew to a close, there was a missing piece to this business strategy, and to me it was starting to stick out like a sore thumb. The head-down, full-speed, multidisciplinary, sprint methodology is indeed a winner on productivity, but before you press ‘Go’ on the corporate reproduction machine, surely it's worth a moment for some critical reflection on what kind of offspring you want to create, and if in fact the parent genes are fit for the next generation. The last slide of the lecture almost spelt it out backwards:

Final slide from lecture 'Creating and Capturing Business Value through Design' presented by BCG Digital Ventures lecture, (MA Service Design, Royal College of Art, 31st January 2018)

Surely, the question we should ask ourselves as designers is, what value can we create, for whom, and why?

When I posed this question to the speaker, framing it in the context of balancing the triple bottom line (people, planet, profit), the response was disappointing. She said these kinds of questions weren't for them to ask as designers, that they weren’t a consideration unless stipulated by the client, which it rarely is. Though I am not suggesting that all their 'ventures' are in vain, her answer confirmed that yet another generation of companies are happy to carry on with business as usual. By seducing obedient designers with trips to the ‘beach’ and dazzling subsequent consumers as they dress up in the latest technology, they blind them from the transformative innovation that is required if we want humanity to thrive on this planet, which is to say, if we truly want jobs and lives with purpose, satisfaction, balance and global opportunity.

Evidently there is still much to be done in educating our species on why we need to re-design our values before we start designing anything else.

But the good news is, there are many out there who aim to do just that. And this includes a good number of RCA students, when they find space to decouple themselves from prescriptive program curriculums and corporate partnerships and are allowed to start thinking more freely.

One person whose work has made an impression on me, in this past year, is economist Kate Raworth. I was lucky enough to hear speak to a packed lecture hall at the London School of Economics last November. I hope she’s invited to share her radical yet rigorous strategies at RCA very soon - the designers of the future certainly need to hear about this.

In our transactional society, taking every job at face-value or going to every lecture with the fear of missing out might blinker you to other opportunities or ways of learning. Take a moment to pause and contemplate. There may be another way to go forward and learn something new.

Closing thoughts: What if we helped corporations have healthy, mindful babies that can thrive on our planet without destroying it? What if we borrowed the BCG Digital Ventures methodology to genetically modify corporate genes? Now that sounds like a startup worth designing.

*To clarify the metaphor, it's more akin to asexual reproduction; Mergers or takeovers would be the equivalent of sexual acts (consent aside).

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